The way things settled in the East, both the Raptors and Wizards ended up pretty properly seeded. Most consider Atlanta, Cleveland and Chicago (to a lesser extent) as the three teams with a real chance to make the Finals. Similarly, few believe Milwaukee, Boston or Brooklyn have much of a chance at a first-round upset. Toronto and Washington are caught right in the middle, fittingly in the 4-5 matchup. Both teams rode hot early-season starts to respectable 82 game records, but each stumbled down the stretch as well, losing more games than they won post All-Star break. In true Eastern Conference fashion, that means one of these two struggling teams will get to move on to face the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
How They Got Here: Toronto Raptors
Last season’s 48 wins were a true breakout for the Toronto franchise. Not expected to contend, they turned into a legitimately good team after the second infamous Rudy Gay trade. A Game 7 loss to Brooklyn in Round 1 thwarted their attempt to win a playoff series for the first time since 2001. With fans rightfully confident to start the season, the Raptors stormed off to a 24-7 start. Kyle Lowry was out of his mind good after signing his new contract; even an early season groin injury to DeMar DeRozan didn’t slow them much. Dwane Casey’s patient coaching job was being praised as the Raptors were nearly unbeatable early on.
Of course, for every Golden State or Atlanta that starts hot and finishes with 60 or more wins, there are teams like Toronto (and Washington) that eventually must fall back to the mean. Oddly, the Raptors season turned for the worse almost exactly on January 1. After that hot start, Toronto went just 25-26 from December 30 on. Their inadequate defense was the culprit of this sharp decline.
In the first 31 games, the Raptors were superior to every team but Golden State, posting a fantastic net rating of 8.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The Clippers and Spurs finished second and third on the season, posting net ratings of 6.9 and 6.6, respectively, while Golden State had a historically absurd 11.4 net rating. The Raptors were beating teams into the ground with a scorching hot offense. Toronto scored 112.3 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, a number that would top the Warriors and Clippers by 2.5 for the full season. But their defense was already leaky at that point, ranking in the bottom half leaguewide at 104.1.
When the offense came flying back to Earth at 105.3 points per 100 possessions in the final 51 games, the Raps’ defense put them in trouble. The 105.5 points they gave up in the second half meant they were outscored in that big stretch even though Toronto posted the league’s seventh-best offense at the same time. The 49-33 record is a franchise record and looks nice (50 would have been nicer), but Toronto hasn’t been an above-average team since 2014.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry
For Lowry, it was a tale of two seasons. Take a look at the early-season stretch that earned him the starting nod in the All-Star Game:
Pretty damn good. Unfortunately, here’s the latter 39 games (he missed 12 due to injury) for the guard:
In about the same minutes, Lowry averaged 1.7 less assists and 0.5 more turnovers. While his rebounds and steals were about equal, he averaged five less points per game. Even worse, his field goal shooting fell from 45.5 percent to a Dion Waiters-esque 37.6 while his three-point shooting fell from a respectable 35.4 percent to 32.6. It’s not hard to see why Toronto’s ridiculously good offense fell by nearly seven points per 100 possessions: Lowry wasn’t even close to the same dude. He sat out several games down the stretch and showed some real signs of life in the last week. If Lowry can regain his 2014 level, the Raptors are the better team.
How They Got Here: Washington Wizards
Like Toronto, the Wizards cruised off of a good start to the season. They went 31-15 in their first 46 games before dropping 21 of their final 36. Washington played at its peak level for longer than Toronto, which is perhaps advantageous for them. However, the Wizards inability to score over the last two and a half months has been baffling.
They had the 13th best offense on January 27th, an acceptable place to be for a team with a top 10 defense. From then on though, only five teams were worse at scoring: the Knicks, 76ers, Hornets, Suns and Bucks. John Wall is probably the heir to Chris Paul‘s throne as the best “natural” point guard. Marcin Gortat is solid around the rim and Bradley Beal and Nene are talented offensive players, injuries or not. The Knicks and 76ers have empty rosters; the Hornets were decimated by injuries; the Suns and Bucks were both more or less destroyed by deadline trades. The Wiz have no excuse outside of Randy Wittman.
Because Washington’s defense has been so consistently solid, they weren’t quite as volatile as Toronto during the season. Still, the drop from a just better than average offense to a dangerously bad one is significant. For the Wizards to prevail, their offense must break out of this prolonged funk.
X-Factor: John Wall
The Wizards may have a really crappy offense, but that ain’t Wall’s fault. With him on the court, the Wizards scored 103.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The defense was even stouter than usual as Wall is an excellent defender for his position. They only gave up 98.1 points with him playing, a number that would lead the NBA overall. Wall’s next-level passing and court vision yield great shots for his teammates and his blinding speed allows him paths to the lane few would even consider. His 10 assists per game were second only to the aforementioned Point God, Chris Paul, and he was fourth among point guards in steals, trailing only Paul, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.
When Wall took the bench, however, the defense was as bad as Toronto’s. Even worse, Washington’s offense died:
In those minutes, the Wizards were about as bad on offense as the Knicks and Hornets. They were a notch below Orlando and Minnesota. Wall is the entire Wizards’ offense. He even takes threes now, averaging 2.7 attempts but only connecting on 30 percent. The Wizards need Wall to be in speed demon mode at all times to score at a good rate.
Season Series: Raptors 3-0
While Toronto swept the series, one of the games went to overtime and the final was won on a last-second jumper. The Raps blew out Washington in early November, but they haven’t been that team in a long time. The results of the season series are one of the most accurate ways to project the playoffs. However, given the odd Jekyll and Hyde nature of both teams’ seasons and the narrow margin in the latter two games, I just don’t think the winner of this series is significant.
Randy Wittman’s offensive philosophy is to make and take the shots that the defense gives you. This may have worked in the past, but today’s NBA is dominated by advanced stats that decry the efficiency of long twos, meaning smart defenses will force these shots exclusively.
Wittman doesn’t understand this. John Wall‘s elite speed and vision prop the Wizards to a decent scoring pace when he’s in, but Wittman’s emphasis on mid-range jumpers destroy the rest of the possessions. This is a constant struggle the Wizards face. So why can Washington defeat Toronto?
Wall will play huge minutes in this series, largely negating the atrocious on/off court splits the Wizards posted. Awful benches can and will get exposed in a seven-game series, but rotations undoubtedly shorten. An old-school coach like Wittman will push Wall to the limit. He played an average of 38.2 minutes in 11 playoff games last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that tick up this year.
Furthermore, taking what the defense gives you isn’t necessarily a bad idea if that defense belongs to Toronto. The Raptors get roasted on the perimeter regularly, leaving Jonas Valanciunas a nearly impossible task defending the rim. He struggles mightily to force steals, limiting the Raptors even more. Wall is the best player in this series, and he’ll slice up the Raptors’ defenders.
On the flip side, the Wizards’ very staunch defense matches up nicely with the Raptors’ biggest strength: offense. It’s tough to bet on Kyle Lowry regaining his early season form, and DeMar DeRozan‘s inefficient game could hurt more than it helps most nights. I like the Wizards’ weak offense to rise up over Toronto’s equally crappy defense. The great irony of it all is that a win in this series almost surely saves Wittman’s job once again. Long live the mid-range game!